"Gothic Populations: Matthew Lewis's The Monk"

Eggebrecht, Paige, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Wall, Cynthia, Department of English, University of Virginia

Published in 1796, Matthew Lewis’s seminal novel The Monk was conceived in a decade obsessed with the French Revolution. Behind this obsession, though, were growing anxieties over population which would develop into a major moral-philosophical debate following Thomas Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). In addition to the threat of political uprising, these anxieties concerned the various pressures of an expanding urban life such as sanitation, housing, employment, and food production; the difficulties of political representation in increasingly diverse communities; and, importantly for this investigation, the financial problems that accompany a growing populace. Several critics have examined Lewis’s narrative representation of crowds and mobs as a Gothic figuration of the French Revolution, but no critic has linked The Monk’s populations and crowds to the larger socio-economic, socio-political issue of population, which is much broader than political revolution alone. This essay reads the crowds in the novel as sublime and argues that Lewis’s novel positions the crowd in a symbiotic relationship within institutional power and not, as existing criticism argues, a power struggle between government and mob. In order to show this difference, I argue that Lewis’s climatic mob scene has many shared characteristics with financial panics, revealing the regulatory power of the populace. Along the way, this essay also examines the characters of Ambrosio and Antonia in terms of the Malthus-Godwin debate over “the organic perfectibility of man” to tease out the complex relationship between institution, community, and individual. As a result of this different interpretation on The Monk’s mobs, a new set of questions arise regarding the impact a burgeoning population had on the emerging concept of “Nation”; the identity of the individual within a growing and changing community; and the defining qualities of the Gothic sublime, which has been largely tied to the awful powers of God or Nature and not to Man himself.

MA (Master of Arts)
literature and finance, literature, The Monk, population and literature, eighteenth-century British literature, gothic, Thomas Malthus, Matthew Lewis, Adam Smith
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